Florida Panthers

Injury-depleted Florida Panthers call up top prospects Mike Matheson, Kyle Rau

Mike Matheson, a highly outed offensive-minded defenseman, was the Florida Panthers’ first-round pick in 2012 (23rd overall) and signed with the team last spring after concluding his junior season at Boston College.
Mike Matheson, a highly outed offensive-minded defenseman, was the Florida Panthers’ first-round pick in 2012 (23rd overall) and signed with the team last spring after concluding his junior season at Boston College. File photo

The injury-riddled Panthers shook things up Friday by calling up two of their top prospects.

Mike Matheson and Kyle Rau — both in their first year of professional hockey after stellar collegiate careers — will make their NHL debuts Saturday night against the visiting Winnipeg Jets.

Matheson, a highly outed offensive-minded defenseman, was Florida’s first-round pick in 2012 (23rd overall) and signed with the team last spring after concluding his junior season at Boston College.

Rau was a third-round pick in 2011 but, like former University of Minnesota roommate Nick Bjugstad, was Minnesota’s “Mr. Hockey” after his senior year of high school.

Rau, 23, was also captain of the Gophers before leaving after his junior season last year.

On Saturday, Rau and Bjugstad will become just the fourth pair of Minnesota Mr. Hockey winners to be teammates in an NHL game.

“He was very excited to get the call; I know he’s been playing very well there,’’ said Bjugstad, who won the Minnesota hockey award a year before Rau in 2010. “It will be good to see him. He’s proved himself at every level, I’ve been watching him since we were little kids. I’m sure he will do good here.”

Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo talks about his work week and returning to start Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets. Video by George Richards.

To make room on the roster, Florida sent forward John McFarland and defenseman Brent Regner back to its AHL team in Portland, Maine.

Rau is expected to join Derek MacKenzie on Florida’s fourth line Saturday; Matheson will play with Steven Kampfer.

The duo will also be the fifth and sixth players to make their NHL debut with the Panthers this season.

“Michael is an incredible skater, is a big-strong kid and can move the puck,’’ said Tom Rowe, Florida’s associate general manager who coached both in Portland earlier this season.

“Kyle is a little pit bull, has incredible courage. In every league he’s been in, people have said he’s not good enough. He keeps proving them all wrong.’’

The Panthers had resisted the urge to promote either player this season despite their play (Rau is tied for the team lead with 17 goals; Matheson leads Portland’s defensemen with five) to help condition them to the rigors of professional hockey and help season their games.

Both Rau and Matheson — who turns 22 later this month — were definite candidates to make the Panthers out of training camp next season, but with so many injuries, their development path has been sped up a bit.

The Panthers are expected to get center Sasha Barkov and defenseman Erik Gudbranson back from suspected concussions Thursday against visiting Arizona.

“We’ve been switching guys in and out, giving them opportunity,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said. “This is definitely fun. I’m sure they will be excited to play their game. ... We think they’ll give us a boost because they’ve both been playing really well.’’

Said Jaromir Jagr: “We’re missing a lot of good players. I don’t think we’re in top form right now, so we just need to find those points. That’s what the good teams do; although they may not feel perfect, they find ways to get the points, find ways to win.”

Florida Panthers winger and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr talks about being one goal back of Brett Hull for third all-time as well as his team's status heading into Saturday's game against the Winnipeg Jets. Video by George Richards.

▪ Jagr pulled within a goal of Brett Hull for third place on the NHL’s all-time list with his third period goal in Florida’s 2-1 shootout loss to San Jose on Thursday.

Jagr, only the second forward to score a goal after his 44th birthday behind Gordie Howe, said he isn’t one to reflect on his accomplishments while in the moment.

“I’m just trying to make sure we play good hockey, I play good hockey,’’ Jagr said. “If I play good, it’s just a matter of time before I score it.’’

Goalie Roberto Luongo often jokes about himself and Jagr reaching a “milestone a night,” but says Jagr’s next goal is going to be a big one.

“It is fun to be part of it, the guys are excited,’’ Luongo said. “But we’re not too focused on it while on the ice. When it happens, it happens, and we’ll be happy for him.’’

▪ Luongo spent this week working hard in practice as backup Al Montoya made both starts against Pittsburgh and San Jose — earning three of the possible four points in the standings.

“He has given us a chance every time he’s played,” Luongo said.

On Friday, Luongo was the only goalie on the ice for Florida’s optional skate and worked as if it was a training camp session.

Luongo will be back in net Saturday against the Jets and said the week of work did him nothing but good.

“It’s been good, I haven’t had a lot of time to work on my game since the start of the season,’’ he said. “I had four or five good practices this week, went out early with [goalie coach] Robb Tallas and feel really good out there. I’m ready for Saturday.’’

Saturday: Jets at Panthers

When, where: 7 p.m., BB&T Center, Sunrise.

TV, radio: FSFL; WQAM (560), WMEN (640), WNMA (1210).

Series: Winnipeg leads 45-33-5.

Scouting report: The Jets rallied from a 4-1 deficit before losing 6-5 in a shootout Thursday in Tampa. Winnipeg has lost its past two and five of eight this month.

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